'The midnight brought the signal sound of strife,
The morn the marshalling in arms, the day—
Battle's magnificently stern array.'
The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers left India for Maritzburg, Natal, in 1897, and therefore, on the outbreak of the war between Great Britain and the South African Republics, had the advantage of possessing some acquaintance with the topography of the colony, and of a two years' training and preparation for the long struggle which was to ensue.
The political situation had become so threatening by July, 1899, that the military authorities began to take precautionary measures, and the battalion was ordered to effect a partial mobilisation and to collect its transport. On September 20th it moved by train to Ladysmith, and four days later proceeded to Dundee. Here Major-General Sir W. Penn-Symons assumed the command of a small force, consisting of 18th Hussars, 13th, 67th, and 69th Batteries R.F.A., 1st Leicestershire Regiment, 1st King's Royal (p. 004) Rifles, and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Each infantry battalion had a mounted infantry company. The brigade was reinforced on October 16th by the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers.
The country was still nominally at peace, but the Dundee force held itself ready for emergencies, and sent out mounted patrols by day and infantry piquets by night, while the important railway junction at Glencoe was held by a company. The General utilised this period of waiting in carrying out field-firing and practising various forms of attack. As he was a practical and experienced soldier, he succeeded in bringing his command to a high state of efficiency, and the battalion owed much to his careful preparation. It was due largely to his teaching that the men knew how to advance from cover to cover and displayed such ready 'initiative' in the various battles of the Natal Campaign. The opportunity of putting into practice this teaching soon presented itself, for on October 12th news was received that the South African Republics had declared war on the previous day.
Consideration of the advisability of pushing forward a small force to Dundee, and of the reasons for such a movement, does not fall within the scope of this work; but a glance at the map will show that Sir W. Penn-Symons had a wide front to watch, since he could be attacked from three sides. Although precise information regarding the Boer forces was lacking, it was known that commandoes were assembling at Volksrust, along the left bank of the Buffalo River, and on the far side of Van Reenan's Pass.
Early in the morning of October 13th a telegram was received from Sir G. White, asking General Penn-Symons to send a battalion to Ladysmith at once, as the Boers were reported to be advancing on that town. The General paid the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers the compliment of selecting them for this duty, and they entrained accordingly, about 4.30 a.m., reaching Ladysmith some four hours later. (p. 005) They detrained with the utmost haste and marched at once towards Dewdrop, whither the Ladysmith garrison had been sent; but the report of a Boer advance was discovered to be without foundation, and the battalion was halted five miles outside Ladysmith, and ordered to return. It did not reach the camp at Dundee until 11 p.m.
On the following day Sir W. Penn-Symons moved his detachment closer to the town of Dundee, and placed his camp three or four hundred yards north of the road to Glencoe Junction. It soon became clear that the Boers meant to invade Natal, and Newcastle was occupied by them on the 15th, while the mounted patrols of the Dundee force were already in touch with the commandoes on the left bank of the Buffalo. The detached company at Glencoe was withdrawn on the 18th, and on the 19th three companies of the regiment, under Major English, were sent to the Navigation Colliery in order to bring away large quantities of mealie bags stored there.
Colonel Cooper, commanding the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, had been given an extension of his command, and was hurrying back from a short period of leave in England, so the battalion was at this time under the command of Major S. G. Bird.
It was now evident to every one that we were on the eve of hostilities, and a spirit of keen excitement and anticipation ran through all ranks. After a long tour of foreign service, during which the regiment had not had the good fortune to see active service, though on three occasions they had been within measurable distance of it, they were now to have the long-wished-for chance of showing that, in spite of altered denominations and other changes, they were prepared to keep their gallant and historical reputation untarnished. Our advanced patrols had already seen the first signs of the coming torrent of invasion, and one and all were seized with that feeling, common to all mankind, of longing to get the (p. 006) waiting and the preparation over, and to commence the real business for which they had been so carefully and so thoroughly prepared. Full of the most implicit confidence in their brave leader, the regiment knew to a man that they would soon be at hand-grips, and their two years' residence in the country and knowledge of the history of the last Boer War, and the stain to be rubbed out, made every pulse tingle with the desire to show that the past had been but an unfortunate blunder, and that the British soldier of the present day was no whit inferior to his predecessors of Indian, Peninsular, Waterloo, and Crimean fame.
On the night of the 19-20th October, Lieutenant Grimshaw was sent with a patrol of the Mounted Infantry company of the battalion to watch the road to Vant's and Landsman's Drifts, ten miles east of Dundee. About 2 a.m. on October 20th this officer reported that a Boer commando was advancing on the town. At a later hour he forwarded a second message to the effect that he was retiring before superior numbers, one man of his party having been wounded, and that the enemy were in occupation of the hills to the east of the town. On the receipt of this message General Penn-Symons ordered two companies of the Dublin Fusiliers to support Lieutenant Grimshaw. 'B' and 'E' companies, under Captains Dibley and Weldon, accordingly left camp at 4 a.m., and, moving through the town, took up a position in Sand Spruit, which runs along the eastern edge of Dundee. The whole brigade stood to arms, as usual, at 5 a.m., but was dismissed at 5.15 a.m. At about 5.30 a.m. the mist lifted, and everybody's gaze was directed on Talana Hill, where numbers of men in black mackintoshes could be seen. The general impression was that they were members of the town guard, but the arrival of the first shell soon dispelled this illusion.
Soon after 5.30 a.m. the Boer artillery opened fire on the camp. Their fire was accurate enough, considering that the (p. 007) range was near 5400 yards, but the damage done was practically nothing, as very few shells burst, and these only on impact. Our own artillery (13th and 69th Field Batteries, with 'D' company of the battalion as escort) did not immediately respond, as they were at the time engaged in watering their horses; but as soon as possible they were in position to the east of the camp, and began to shell the crest of Talana Hill. They obtained the range almost immediately, and in a short time overpowered the hostile guns, which were thus prevented from playing an important part in the day's battle.
As soon as the Boers started shelling the camp, the battalion fell in on its parade-ground in quarter-column and waited for orders. But when a shell fell just behind the ranks, Major Bird moved it at the double through the camp to a donga which afforded good cover. The men then removed their great-coats, and stayed for some minutes watching the Boer shells passing over their heads. Eventually the King's Royal Rifles, Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the battalion were ordered by the General to move in extended order through the town, and to concentrate in the spruit already occupied by 'B' and 'E' companies. The Leicesters and 67th Battery were left near the camp to watch Impati Mountain, since it was probable that the Boer force which had occupied Newcastle would appear from that direction. The mounted troops (18th Hussars and the Mounted Infantry company of the Dublin Fusiliers, under Captain Lonsdale, less Lieutenant Cory's section, which, fortunately for it, was sent off in another direction), under the command of Colonel Möller, were sent to turn the right flank of the Boers' position on Talana Hill and so threaten their rear.
As the extended lines of the infantry moved through the town they were greeted by pompom fire, which, however, did no damage. It was their first introduction to this hated (p. 008) and under-rated weapon, whose moral effect is so great that, even if the casualties it inflicts are small in number, it is always likely to exercise a marked influence, more especially on young troops and at the commencement of a campaign. Men heard it in wonder, asking each other what it was, and why had we nothing like it, and similar questions. By 6.30 a.m. the three battalions were assembled in the bed of the spruit, and the General rode up with the Staff in order to give his orders for the attack. The 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were to form the firing line, with the 60th Rifles in support and the Royal Irish Fusiliers in reserve. Under Talana Hill is a wood surrounding a small house known as Smith's Farm. Between this wood and Sand Spruit is a long stretch of veld, which on the day of the battle was intersected by several wire fences. The battalion received orders to cross this open ground by successive companies, 'H' company, under Lieutenant Shewan, formed the right of the line, and was the first company to leave the shelter of the spruit. It made for the south-east corner of the wood, where it was afterwards joined by the maxims, and at once opened fire on Talana and Dundee Hills. 'B' company under Captain Dibley, 'A' company under Major English, and 'E' company under Captain Weldon extended to ten paces, and followed in succession. The enemy had by this time developed a vigorous fire, but the range was long and the casualties small. The advancing companies moved on steadily, reached the edge of the wood, and entered it. They now became somewhat separated. 'A,' 'G' (Captain Perreau), and 'F' inclined to the left, 'C' and 'E' remained in the centre with 'B' on their right, while 'H' was held back at the corner of the wood. The latter was bounded on the far side by a stone wall, beyond which stretched an open piece of ground until, further up the hill, there was a second wall. At this point there was a sudden change in the slope of the ground, which rose almost precipitously to the crest. (p. 009) Immediately opposite the point where 'B' company issued from the wood a third wall ran up the hill, connecting the two already mentioned. When the attackers reached the far end of the wood, they came under such a well-directed and heavy fire that their progress was at first checked, in spite of the support afforded by our artillery, which rained shrapnel on the hostile position. The Boers, lying behind the boulders on the crest of Talana Hill, found excellent cover; while from Dundee Hill they could bring an effective enfilade fire on the open space between the two parallel walls. Opposite 'A' company a donga ran up the hill, and at first sight seemed to offer an excellent line of approach for an attacking force. Major English, in command of the company, rushed forward and, in spite of a heavy fire, succeeded in cutting a wire fence which closed the mouth of the donga. He then, at about 8 a.m., led his company into the latter, and was followed by 'G' and 'F' (Captain Hensley) companies; but the donga proved almost a death-trap, since it was swept by the rifles of some picked marksmen on the right of the Boer position.
It was impossible for these three companies to advance any further, and they were therefore forced to limit their efforts to an attempt to keep down the Boer fire. Meanwhile, General Penn-Symons had, about 9.15 a.m., come up to the far edge of the wood, and crying, 'Dublin Fusiliers, we must take the hill!' crossed the wall. Shortly afterwards he received a mortal wound. Captain Weldon was also killed near the same spot in a gallant effort to help a wounded comrade, No. 5078 Private Gorman. Captain Weldon, together with several men of his company, had surmounted the wall in face of a heavy fire, and had taken cover in a small depression on its further side. Private Gorman was hit in the very act of surmounting the obstacle, and was falling backwards, when Captain Weldon, rushing out from his cover, seized him by the arm, and (p. 010) was pulling him into safety when he himself was mortally wounded. Privates Brady and Smith dragged him in under cover, but he only lived a few minutes. His dog, a fox-terrier named Rose, had accompanied him through the fight, and when his body was later on recovered, the faithful little animal was found beside it, and was afterwards taken care of by the men of 'E' company. There was no more popular officer in the regiment than George Weldon, and his loss was deeply felt by all ranks. He was the first officer of the Dublin Fusiliers to fall in the war, which thus early asserted its claim to seize the best. He was buried that same afternoon in the small cemetery, facing the hill on which he had met his death.
By this time, 9.30 a.m., the Rifles and Irish Fusiliers had closed up and become merged in the firing line. Slowly, and by the advances of small parties at a time, the attackers gained ground, principally by creeping along the transverse wall which afforded cover from the enemy on Dundee Hill, (p. 011) Helped by the incessant fire of the artillery, which at 11.30 a.m. moved up to the coalfields railway, the infantry gradually collected behind the second wall. They were now within 150 yards of the crest, and the roar of battle grew in intensity. About 11.30 a.m. Colonel Yule came up and ordered the hill to be assaulted, directing the battalion to charge the right flank of the hill, and the Rifles the centre. Captain Lowndes, who was with the companies on the right, led them across the wall and over an open piece of ground. He gave the command 'Right incline,' and so well were the men in hand that the order was promptly obeyed, shortly after which he was badly wounded. Meanwhile, in the centre, men of all three regiments, led by the Staff and regimental officers, dashed over the wall and began to clamber up the steep and rocky slope. The artillery quickened its fire and covered the crest with shrapnel. But the Boers still remained firm. Many of them stood up, their mackintoshes waving in the wind, and poured a deadly fire on the assaulting infantry. Though most of these brave burghers paid for their daring with their lives, they repulsed this first gallant charge. The Dublin Fusiliers suffered many casualties in this first assault. Captain Lowndes, the Adjutant, had his leg practically shattered, as he, with the other officers, ran ahead to lead the charge. Captain Perreau was shot through the chest; Captain Dibley was almost on the top of the hill when hit. He had a dim recollection of the gallant Adjutant of the Royal Irish Fusiliers racing up almost alongside him and within a few paces of the summit, when he suddenly saw an aged and grey-bearded burgher drawing a bead upon him at a distance of a few paces only. He snapped his revolver at him, but only to fall senseless next moment with a bullet through his head. Marvellous though it seems he made a comparatively speedy recovery, and was able to ride into Ladysmith, at the head of his company, in the following February, having been in the hospital in the besieged town (p. 012) in the interval. Evidence of the temporary nature of the discomfort caused by a bullet through the head is afforded by the fact that he is to-day one of the best bridge-players in the regiment. Poor young Genge, who had only recently joined, was mortally wounded, and died shortly after the battle, killed in his first fight and in the springtime of life.
Sergeant-Major Burke's (now Quartermaster) experiences may be best told in his own words: 'It must have been shortly after poor Weldon was killed that I came across "E" company; finding no officer with them I assumed command, and on arrival at the donga handed them over to Major Bird, and accompanied Colonel Yule, who had just arrived, and was ascending the hill. We had only gone a few yards, and were about six paces from the top wall, when I was bowled over, hit in the leg. It was a hot place, for as I lay there another bullet hit me in the shoulder. I crawled as well as I could to a rock, and sitting up underneath it lit a pipe. Scarcely had I got it to draw when a bullet dashed it out of my hand, taking a small piece of the top of my thumb with it. Two men were shot dead so close that they fell across my legs, effectually pinning me to the ground, while two more were wounded and fell alongside of me. At this juncture Colour-Sergeants Guilfoyle (now Sergeant-Major) and James dashed out of cover, and, picking me up, carried me to a more sheltered position, whence I could see what was going on all round, without myself being seen.' He was left at Dundee with the wounded, and subsequently taken to Pretoria with other prisoners of war.
Whilst the men and officers were thus recovering their breath for a renewed attack, a large number were undoubtedly hit by our own shrapnel, as they clung closely to the hillside to avoid coming under fire from the enemy, who still held the top. It was imperative to draw our gunners' attention to their situation, to effect which purpose, an intrepid signaller, Private Flynn, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, (p. 013) jumped up, and at the imminent risk of his own life freely exposed himself in his endeavour to 'call up' the guns. Finding, after repeated attempts, that he could not attract their attention, he boldly walked back down the hillside, torn as it was by mauser fire, and personally delivered his message, a glorious and courageous example of that devotion to duty which proved so strongly marked a characteristic of our N.C.O.'s and privates throughout the war.
Major English now extricated his company from the donga and managed to reach the second wall, where he collected all available men, including 'F' and 'G' companies, and maintained an incessant fire on Dundee and Talana Hills. The artillery behind had never slackened in their efforts to support the infantry, and their shrapnel searched the whole length of the crest line. This combined fire began at last to tell. The rattle of the enemy's musketry, which had lasted since 6.30 a.m., gradually grew feebler, until about 1 p.m. our infantry made a second dash across the wall and this time reached the top of the hill. Below them they saw the stream of flying Boers hurrying across the veld. It was the moment for a vigorous outburst of musketry, but 'some one blundered,' and the fleeting moment sped without being taken advantage of. It is true that those men who first arrived on the summit were firing away, and were joined in doing so by every other man who breathlessly arrived. The company officers had just got their men well in hand, and were directing the fire, when to every one's disgust, and sheer, blank amazement, the 'Cease fire' sounded clear above the din of the fight. There was nothing for it but to stop, but the sight of the enemy streaming away in dense masses just below them, that enemy who had up to now been pouring a relentless hail of bullets on them for hours, was too much. Captain Hensley rushed up to Major English, and after a brief conference, feeling certain the call must have been blown in error, the latter gave the command to re-open fire. Barely (p. 014) was it obeyed when the imperative bugle once more blared forth its interference, and the company officers, the commanders of the recognised battle-units, had nothing left them but compliance.
The guns with 'D' company as escort had come to the neck between Talana and Dundee Hills, but did not fire. The fight was over and Major English formed up the battalion. It then marched back as a rearguard to the brigade, through Dundee to the camp, much as if after a field-day, halting half-way to receive an issue of rations sent out by the A.S.C. It had lost two officers and six men killed, and three officers and fifty-two men wounded. As the troops passed through the town they were warmly cheered by the inhabitants. Late in the afternoon news reached the camp that the Mounted Infantry company, together with a squadron of the 18th Hussars, had been captured, but this was kept from the rank and file of the battalion. As already stated above, Colonel Möller had been sent with the mounted troops round the right flank of the Boers. He succeeded in his task, but proceeded too far, and when the enemy retreated from Talana Hill he found himself with some 200 rifles attempting to stop a force of 4000 Boers. He was roughly handled, but managed to get clear. Then, unluckily misled by the mist, he lost his way, and, instead of returning to camp, moved towards Impati Mountain, where he stumbled into the Boer main commando advancing from Newcastle. He took up a defensive position, placing the cavalry in a kraal and the mounted infantry on some rising ground near. The enemy brought up artillery and soon surrounded him, finally forcing him to surrender.
Talana Hill, in point of numbers, may not rank as a great battle, but its moral effect can scarcely be exaggerated. It was the first conflict of the war. It was Majuba reversed, and the issue had far-reaching consequences. The news of the victory spread quickly through South Africa, and had (p. 015) considerable influence on the Dutch Colonists, who were, to use an expressive colloquialism, 'sitting on the fence,' and kept them sitting there, at a time when had they descended on the wrong side their action could not have failed to be extremely prejudicial to the interests of the Empire; but over and above all else it showed to the world that the British infantry could still attack and carry a position in face of modern rifle-fire, a lesson which was never forgotten by Boer or Briton, in spite of after events. Moreover, Talana must ever be a memorable name in the annals of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, since it was the first battle in which they had fought under their new title, which was from that day on to become as well known as that of any regiment in the army.
The other regiments engaged had also suffered very severely, the 60th Rifles losing, amongst other officers, their gallant chief, Colonel Gunning. It was curious that on the last occasion the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers had seen active service—the siege and capture of Mooltan—they should then have fought alongside the 60th, as they did in the present instance